African Futures Animating culture

Loyiso Mkize was commissioned to paint a series of artworks from the Holywood movie "Momentum", whcih was shot in Cape Town, and a cover from his "Kwezi" comic book
© Esa Alexander

When were we going to get a superhero who looked like us?

VISUAL artist Loyiso Mkize’s laid-back demeanour and soft accents belie the grandeur of his project. Yet if you strain your ear to listen carefully, you will hear that with each step, the footfall of his plans is always rising to a crescendo. In our hour-long talk at Eyethu Gallery, Mofolo, Soweto, he must have mentioned Africa, South Africa, African aesthetic, no less than 10 times.

When were we going to get a superhero who looked like us?

VISUAL artist Loyiso Mkize’s laid-back demeanour and soft accents belie the grandeur of his project. Yet if you strain your ear to listen carefully, you will hear that with each step, the footfall of his plans is always rising to a crescendo. In our hour-long talk at Eyethu Gallery, Mofolo, Soweto, he must have mentioned Africa, South Africa, African aesthetic, no less than 10 times.

On that Friday afternoon, Mkize was putting the final touches to Reflections, an oil-on-canvas exhibition, his third solo show, due to open the following day. Some of his paintings and Kwezi, his comic series starring Kwezi, were showcased at the FNB Joburg Art Fair held a week later.

It is when he talks about Kwezi that Mkize is most animated. The series, now in its fifth instalment, is about a superhero named Kwezi (the word for star in Nguni languages; sometimes his full name is Kwezilokusa, the early morning star in the east that heralds dawn).

Initially Kwezi is, naturally, a reluctant South African superhero. A marketing sidekick has a grand ambition: to get Kwezi on every magazine cover and name-checked in the trendy blogosphere. Which is rather a limited mission for Kwezi, who is believed to be a “descendant of the star people”, an ancient race that came to Earth when humankind was on the verge of extinction.

They came, they saved, they have since disappeared. Now the work of the ancients is under threat as a rapacious comprador class with dreams of taking over vast swaths of the Gold City has arisen. Which makes the need for Kwezi as compelling as the last time the star people walked the earth.

The black South African superhero terrain is rather barren and Kwezi is the first flowering. Well, not really. There has been, to be sure, a black superhero who, rather ironically, met his end at the hands of other black people.

Danny Ndhlomo was Mighty Man, a short-lived 1970s hero created somewhat cynically by Richard Manville, a US marketing executive who had business connections in South Africa.

Before Ndhlomo became Mighty Man, he had been a police officer, shot and wounded in a shootout with tsotsis at a supermarket in a township not dissimilar to Soweto. He was taken care of by a race of creatures in an underground cave until he recovered his health — and assumed supernatural powers.

But Mighty Man’s work was, strangely, confined to a certain locale and, like a man with a grudge, he dealt only with petty criminals, gangsters and killers, and not the bigger crime of apartheid.

After the conflagration of June 1976, students, outraged by Mighty Man’s rather limited brief, “burned down the newsstands ... threw the things on the ground and [they] had to stop publishing them”, according to Manville.

So you can see what Mkize means when he talks about how the South African superhero is an “aspirational” figure who encourages people to “reimagine themselves”. Kwezi is crucial in the quest to “change the frame of reference”.

“I have always asked the question: when are we ever going to get a South African superhero who looks like us, who speaks like us, who shares the same environment as us? That would be a powerful thing. That jump from reading about X-Men to reading about a South African superhero brings the fantasy closer home.”

Mkize grew up in Butterworth in the Eastern Cape. From an early age, it was clear the family had an artist. “I would draw, draw and draw on a daily basis.” And his parents stoked his talent. “I can’t remember a single day I wasn’t encouraged to be an artist.”

He studied graphic art at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and became an illustrator for Super Strikas, but has since left to concentrate on his fine art and Kwezi (there are plans to animate the comic).

At Eyethu, the works on show demonstrate Mkize’s facility with different styles: the classical portraiture and the surrealism that give his work an otherworldly Afro-futurist texture. It’s not a surprise that art historian and University of the Witwatersrand lecturer Raimi Gbadamosi is curating some of Mkize’s works in an exhibition to coincide with the Goethe Institut’s conference and festival provocatively titled African Futures.

The signature work, in the classical style, is that of a regal, buxom woman, staff in left hand, head bedecked in a doek, seeming to ascend into the clouds. This romanticised piece, Mkize explains, is about “unlearning certain notions of beauty,” about “devising an African aesthetic that is unique and authentic”.

For me, it is his surreal portraits that come alive in a vivid and declamatory visual vocabulary. Superimposing heady symbols and bewitching metaphors onto standard stylised portraits, Mkize is able to come up with searing commentaries of the here and now.

Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Lilian Ngoyi and other superhumans are gone; we are left with Jacob Zuma, Robert Mugabe and other midgets.
Maybe we do need a Kwezi.

This article was first published in The Sunday Times on 27 September, 2015. Mkize's work appeared as part of the They came from outer space exhibition.